The Islamists who insist on Morsi’s return to power? The secularists who were determined to put an end to his short rule? The senior military officers who are bent on remaining in overall control of the political game? When the guns fall silent and the political process ensues, Cairo's teeming millions, and its influential middle class, will be crucial in shaping Egypt's future.
Cities are not merely population centers, or dots scattered on a lifeless map or names listed in the directory of an atlas. Cities are expressions of cultural identity, symbols of historical processes, hubs of social development, media for transmitting ideas and radiating knowledge, focal points of interaction with the outside world, factories of modern man's anxieties and ambitions, and arenas of war and revolution. Cities are the locus of human activity.
In Egypt, it is Cairo—or, in Arabic, Al-Qahera (the city victorious)—that reflects all these sociological and psychohistorical processes. The 1,000-year-old city has an abundance of complex meanings and sharp contradictions, both visible and hidden, enriched by a long history of fluctuations—magnificent rises and steep declines, glorious triumphs and disastrous setbacks, bursts of enthusiasm and tears of grief. Cairo is a wild yet charming city. Its liveliness is stupendous; its flavor is a blend of Africa, Asia and Europe; its pulse is frenzied but musical; its chaos borders on madness; and, most importantly, its people retain their distinctive wit however great the difficulties.
Modern Egyptian rulers, however, failed to unravel the secrets of the city, abandoning it at times, unleashing their wrath against it at other times—always failing to understand it. They mistook Cairo's patience for apathy, overlooking the fact that, like all old cities, it is both wise and resilient. It smiles in the face of hardships, bears the ebbs of time with a strong heart, but in response to tyrants, it doesn’t murmur; it shouts.
President Anwar Sadat, for instance, sought solace in his village house in Mit Abu El-Kom, in Menoufia Governorate, away from Cairo's political traffic jams. Sadat was not returning to his roots in a quest to consolidate family ties or evoke sweet childhood memories. Sadat hated Cairo and its unruly people. The 1970s in Egypt were a decade of vibrancy and volatility. Sadat's shattering of Nasser's policies provoked leftists and Nasserites against him. Cairo's universities and intellectuals' cafes bustled with anti-regime political activities and debates. The 1977 food riots in particular drew Sadat closer to the village and away from the city.
Sadat's constant emphasis on "countryside values" seemed, subconsciously, to reflect his appreciation of the loyalty and docility of Egypt's fellahin (peasants), against the rebellious and unyielding nature of Cairenes, the vile effendis (men of education) as Sadat habitually described them. Cairo should turn into "one big village," he once said. For Sadat, Cairo was a hotbed of intellectuals, artists and students, who posed a menace to his authority and to the patriarchal society over which he wished to preside. He saw himself as the father of all Egyptians, who were one extended family, and his 'boys' should toe his line; to disagree was rude and ungrateful. In order to punish "infringement" of a vaguely defined and delineated set of "Egyptian ethics and social norms," he introduced the Shame Law in 1980, a decree that has since been cited as an example of political and legal folly.
Likewise, from the late 1990s until 2011, President Hosni Mubarak—and his 'royal' entourage—spent long periods of time in the resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, far away from Cairo's oven-like heat and suffocating air pollution. His extended stays there prompted his critics to describe the small town as "the president's capital." The time Mubarak spent in Sharm al-Sheikh, in a posh villa overlooking a picturesque sea and mountain view, was perhaps his only way to think of himself as an achiever, a leader whose services to his country did not go in vain. Tourism flourished under Mubarak, with resorts like Sharm al-Sheikh and Hurghada turning into international tourist destinations.
In the tranquility of his comfortable exile, Mubarak could block out what had become of Egypt in his three-decade rule: a despairing nation; a corrupt and dysfunctional state; a failing economy addicted to foreign largesse, crumbling services, an ailing infrastructure, a population boom (more than a million new souls every year), and a fading grandeur replaced by a pitiable image in the region and beyond. Nevertheless, Mubarak's flight to the periphery did not bring the core to rest. Cairo bent under Mubarak, but it did not break. Eventually, Cairenes flocked to Tahrir Square, Cairo's (and Egypt's) center, to seal Mubarak's fate.
Goethe said that to rule is easy, to govern difficult. Sadat and Mubarak exemplified the saying—the former assassinated (on October 6, 1981, in a military parade commemorating his "day of glory"), the latter deposed by a massive popular revolution. The fate of both men was determined by Egypt's middle class, the crucial yet ever-neglected force in Egyptian politics.
The weight of this critical mass—comprised of the urban, educated and vocal social segments—in Egyptian politics is disproportionate to its size. Since the reign of Mohamed Ali (1805-1848), it was this class that introduced new ideas to Egyptian society, flirted with Western ideologies, championed the cause of independence from foreign occupation, embodied and propagated Egypt's 'soft power' in the Arab world, and thought about national issues and aspirations. Cairo has been the incubator of all these energetic processes. In contrast, the lower class has been pushed to the margins of public movement and debate. Unsurprisingly, when Tahrir Square was fanning the flames of revolution against Mubarak in 2011, remote rural areas, particularly in the largely impoverished and underdeveloped Upper Egypt region, remained detached and noiseless.
If history repeats itself, first as tragedy, next as farce (as Marx said), then Morsi's short-lived rule denotes the latter. While Mubarak was hated by the majority of his people, Morsi seemed to be leader by accident, underdog rather than tyrant, a helpless stooge of the aging and conspiratorial Muslim Brotherhood leaders, a target of mockery rather than an object of criticism, and a victim of his own banality and blindness to Egypt's realities. Nobody took his threats seriously, and after a few months in power, almost everybody sensed that he would not survive for too long. When Morsi was ousted, most people felt no urge to retaliate, only a sigh of relief.
Morsi's downfall was also partly because he did not understand Cairo. Despite the MB's successive ballot box victories in post-Mubarak Egypt, it was Cairo that slowed down the group's foray into the territory abandoned by Mubarak and his defeated, dissolved party. In Cairo, Morsi lost both rounds of the presidential elections (May-June 2012) as well as the referendum on the constitution (December 2012).
Morsi visited Tahrir Square only once after his election victory. This visit came on his first day as president, in order to celebrate his victory among his supporters and, in hindsight, to pay farewell to the central square of a city he so quickly and foolishly lost. Morsi remained oblivious to the threat posed by Cairo's recalcitrance until the very end. During his last crisis in power, he reportedly told US President Barack Obama that those who demonstrated against him constituted a minority (only 160,000 people, he claimed), when aerial images taken by military helicopters captured millions packing the streets and squares of Cairo and other cities to demand his expulsion.
Only Nasser—who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class—bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt's middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo's old Islamic city. "I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids]," he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.
Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt's pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo's posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict—Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: "This is the best view in the world." On the following day, he died.
A river of people gathered in Tahrir and surrounding areas to attend Nasser's epic funeral—the same unprecedented numbers who assembled in the same square decades later to send first Mubarak then Morsi a clear message: you terribly misunderstood us and you have to go.
Cities should be defined by demography, not geography. In his tragic play Coriolanus, Shakespeare wondered: what is the city but the people? Had Sadat, Mubarak and Morsi shared Shakespeare's wonder, their fates could have been different. But in the end, the historical pattern repeated itself. The city retained the validity of its name, victorious; and its thoughtless despots continued to be defeated, ostracized and deleted from collective memory.
Nael M. Shama
* This article appeared first on the website of Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on August 15, 2013.